Jerry Hughes

    Jerry Hughes’s life has been full of amazing beginnings. What began as a life growing up in Chicago soon led to boarding school in St. Louis and then college at the University of Notre Dame. He eventually began what would become his lifelong career as a television director in Hollywood—but that West Coast start was only the springboard that brought him to the true beginning of his professional life here in Pittsburgh.

    This founder and president of Hughes Television Productions is still working in the industry that sparked his passion—but he is also at the horizon of his next beginning and focusing on being a husband, father, grandfather, autobiographer, and Strip District community advocate.

    Hughes first came to Pittsburgh for a “short” assignment to tape a Kennedy Center show starring Kermit the Frog and Jim Henson for WQED. But he was initially reluctant and skeptical about leaving the Los Angeles hub of television production: “I started backing out of the project even though they said it was only for two weeks—why would I want to go to Pittsburgh?” That was in 1980, and he never went back. Perhaps it was fate, but after that project, the station received a $6 million grant to produce a full series on the Kennedy Center. “The WQED vice president of programming just came up to me and said, ‘It’s yours,’ ” Hughes recalls while showing his never-fading smile.

    Unknowingly to him, being relocated to Pittsburgh initiated another professional beginning that would define much of Hughes’s and his company’s work for decades. With his strong connections to Hollywood, and because of his new locale, Hughes became the “go-to guy” for shows like Entertainment Tonight that were hungry for well-directed and -produced location reels and interviews. “So that’s what really kept me here—when these shows needed someone to shoot east of the Colorado River, they’d call me,” he says.

    Some of his first interviews during those early days were with the likes of Mean Joe Greene, Little Richard, and Aretha Franklin. In addition, Hughes continued to work for other WQED programs like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This connection led him to filming the beloved children’s-show legend during a trip to Moscow.

    Triggering an almost snowball-like chain of events, that experience had the incredible consequence of giving Hughes the opportunity to introduce Mickey Mouse to the Soviet Union in 1988. He explains: “When the Soviet Union finally opened its doors to Disney, the company planned a public and media appearance for Mickey.” Subsequently, the Disney Channel wanted to create a television special capturing that moment, and since they knew Hughes had already been there with Mister Rogers, they hired him to produce a show called Mickey Goes to Moscow.

    Recalling that Roy Disney could not attend Mickey’s first public appearance in Red Square, Hughes himself stepped in himself for this historic event. “Everyone there recognized Mickey and throes of people were all cheering for him. When I described this to Roy, he wanted to re-create that same scene, but this time with him taking Mickey to Red Square,” he says. That video news release of Roy Disney and Mickey Mouse in Red Square was sent out all over the world and seen by 52 million people. “But I took Mickey there first!” laughs Hughes. So in actuality, one could easily argue that Hughes was the beginning of Disney in the Soviet Union!

    Although still president of his production company, Hughes is technically retired from the Directors Guild, and admits that he is not doing nearly as much producing and directing now. “One thing that has changed is that I’ve scaled down from those big productions. Instead I do quite a bit of single-camera work and now I can really pick and choose my projects. I figure that I worked hard enough for 40 to 50 years to be able to do that!”  He currently helps organizations like the Pittsburgh Symphony and Pittsburgh Opera, while also providing his services pro bono for charity organizations. “I still love doing that and I’m also just really enjoying more time to myself—I have six kids and 13 grandkids scattered from London to Los Angeles, so I now have the flexibility to travel and see them more as well.”

    “Sometimes I just like to sit in front of the fireplace and write,” Hughes says. This alludes to his next beginning: After visually showing other people’s stories for so many years, Hughes decided to start documenting his own story. “It’s an autobiography named, In the Beginning Was the Word—that covers my entire life.” The title references an encounter he had with the late radio-broadcasting icon Paul Harvey—who is best known for his The Rest of the Story news segments. After Hughes interviewed him for an Entertainment Tonight episode, Harvey asked him for thematic advice for his upcoming keynote address to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Hughes suggested that he express the biblical quote, “In the beginning was the word,” because of his strong belief in the power of language regardless of the medium in which it is presented. Not only did Harvey use the quote in his speech, but it seemed the perfect encapsulation for Hughes’s book. “The reason I came to that title is because I feel that even with all that I do visually in television—and in everything else—to me the most important thing is the writing.”

    The Strip District has been an integral part of Hughes’s latest beginning because he absolutely loves living there in general and at the Cork Factory specifically. Recently, Hughes was the chairman of the Safety Committee for the Strip District. “I did a personal inventory of every crosswalk here, determining which ones needed repainting or new signs.” In addition, Hughes joined the group Neighbors in the Strip, and he is annually involved with its Earth Day cleanup. “This year we had over 20 volunteers for that day from the Cork Factory alone,” he mentions. “I always have had the need to be involved—and now much of my spare time is devoted to the Strip.” Hughes also greatly enjoys the vibrant social activities that living at the Cork Factory offers, and he is fondly referred to as The Mayor by its other residents.

    Out of all the places he has lived, visited, and worked, the Strip District is truly Hughes’s home for very simple reasons—its people and its sense of neighborhood. He even changed his mind about moving back to California a few years ago. “There is just something about the people here and the place—so many vendors know my name that when I walk down Penn Avenue almost all of them ask, ‘Hey, Jerry, how’s it going?’ ” He also appreciates this “walkability” of the Strip—in fact, he recently decided that he no longer needed a car. Hughes concludes, “Living in the Strip is just so unique—and it is exactly what I need now in my life.”

    Hughes’s beginning in Pittsburgh caused a chain reaction of events that eventually became the inception of so many other beginnings for him. Through the process of editing and writing his biography, he often finds great enjoyment in reading and reminiscing about his beginnings here. “It really takes me back—like to the time when my Hollywood friends first told me that if I went to Pittsburgh, my career was going to dry up. Well, it flourished!”

    Christopher Cussat sincerely believes in the importance of language and the dissemination of knowledge through words, because words can and do affect life and the world as we know it. You can read more of Christopher’s words at www.cussat.com.
    Photography by Greger Erickson